When Hannah Whitall Smith grew up among the Quakers of Philadelphia in the 1830s, she found that their legalism and emphasis on inward feelings and impressions combined to make a perfect formula for religious doubt:
The sort of introspection I had imbided from my Quaker teaching was calculated to lead to constant self-examination of the most difficult sort, because it was an examination, not so much into one’s actions, as into one’s emotions! And considering what ticklish things our emotions are, and how much they depend upon the state of our health, or the state of the weather, or the influence of other minds, no more fatal occupation in my opinion can be indulged in than this sort of self-examination, and no more unreliable guage [sic] could possibly be found as to one’s spiritual condition than that afforded by one’s own interior emotions (The Unselfishness of God, pp. 163-64).
In the last blog, I summarized Smith’s negative experiences in that kind of religion (see here). In this blog, I want to explain how she found assurance of her salvation.
After her struggles, Smith soon rejected the whole feelings-based approach to deciding religious issues:
If I had my way, the whole subject of feelings and emotions in the religious life would be absolutely ignored. Feelings there will be, doubtless, but they must not be in the least depended on, nor in any sense be taken as the test or gauge of one’s religion. They ought to be left out of the calculation entirely. You may feel good or you may feel bad, but neither the good feeling nor the bad feeling affect the real thing (The Unselfishness of God, p. 160).
What’s the alternative to a religion based on feelings?
One based on facts.
After all, she reasoned, what do feelings have to do with facts? Something is true or false, independent of how you happen to feel about it. For example, take God’s love:
If God loves you, it is of no account, as far as the fact goes, whether you feel that He loves you or do not feel it; although, as I say, it materially affects your comfort (p. 160).
Smith gave an example of how stupid it is to base your decisions on feelings (I plan on stealing this illustration):
It was just as if a man, wanting to travel to a certain place, should enter the first railway station he might come across, and, without making any enquiries, should take a seat in the first railway carriage at hand, and should then shut his eyes and try to feel whether he was in the right train or not. No man in his senses would do such an idiotic thing (p. 165).
If you wouldn’t use your feelings to decide which train to take, why would you depend on them to determine which religion was true? That would be crazy! And yet, to Smith’s embarrassment, that’s what she was doing:
And yet it was exactly this I was doing in my religious life. It never entered my head to try and find out the facts of religion. I did not even know there were any facts to find out (p. 165).
Smith started searching for the facts. She quickly concluded that “the Bible was the book I needed” (p. 174), and someone told her that the “plan of salvation” could be found in the book of Romans, especially chapters 3 to 5:
It declared that Christ was the substitute for sinners—that He had in their place borne the punishment they deserved, and that all we had to do in order to secure the full benefit of this substitution, was simply to believe in it, and accept the forgiveness so purchased (p. 175).
This made sense to Smith:
It was a “plan of salvation” that I could understand. There was nothing mystical or mysterious about it,—no straining after emotions, no looking out for experiences. It was all the work of Another done for me, and required nothing on my part but a simple common-sense understanding and belief (p. 176).
She understood the plan, but did she believe it? Not quite. She needed further explanation and eventually, Smith met someone from the Plymouth Brethren who asked her if she was a Christian. She denied it. “I have only found out a wonderful piece of good news that I never knew before” (p. 180). She was happy about that good news but did not understand how it affected her.
“But,” he persisted, “that very discovery makes you a Christian, for the Bible says that whoever believes this good news has passed from death unto life, and is born of God. You have just said that you believe it and rejoice in it, so of course you have passed from death unto life and are born of God.” I thought for a moment, and I saw the logic of what he said. There was no escaping it. And with a sort of gasp I said, “Why, so I must be. Of course I believe this good news, and therefore of course I must be born of God” (p. 180).
At that moment, Smith had her “aha!” moment. The truth stuck, and Smith knew she had eternal life:
From that moment the matter was settled, and not a doubt as to my being a child of God and the possessor of eternal life, has ever had the slightest power over me since (p. 180).
As she studied the Bible further, her belief was confirmed:
I rushed to my Bible to make myself sure there was no mistake, and I found it brimming over with this teaching. “He that believeth hath,” “He that believeth is.” There seemed to be nothing more to be said about it. Three passages especially struck me. 1 John 5:1, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God;” and John 5:24, “Verily, verily I say unto you, He that heareth My word and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death into life;” and above all, John 20:30, 31, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, ye might have life through His name” (pp. 180-81).
As Smith emphasizes, the fact of her salvation did not depend on what she felt, but on what God promised. And Jesus promised that if you believe, you have. Smith’s salvation was settled:
I believed what was written with all my heart and soul, and therefore I could not doubt that I was one of those who had “life through His name.” The question was settled without any further argument. It had nothing to do with how I felt, but only with what God had said. The logic seemed to me irresistible; and it not only convinced me then, but it has carried me triumphantly through every form of doubt as to my relations with God which has ever assailed me since. And I can recommend it as an infallible receipt to every doubter (p. 181, emphasis added).
Isn’t that a wonderful story?
Like Hannah Whitall Smith, you might have been raised in a works-salvation religion mixed with a heavy emphasis on feelings. Consequently, that might have left you with doubts and despair about your salvation. If so, do what Hannah Whitall Smith did. Look outside your inner feelings to the work that Another did for you.
Jesus died for you on the cross. And because of His perfect work on the cross, He could offer you salvation for free, i.e., that whoever believes in Him has everlasting life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 20:30-31). If you believe what Jesus said, then what do you have? Everlasting life. That is a fact, no matter how you might feel about it.
As Hannah Whitall Smith might say, the logic is inescapable,
the question is settled,
and there’s nothing more to say about it—